I’ve always been curious about the role of the marketing department at the big publishing houses. And despite a few years in the business, my understanding of marketing is still a bit hazy. So I asked my friend, marketing guru Matthew Baldacci, VP, Associate Publisher at St. Martin’s Press, to help clear a few things up for me.
Anyone who has met Matt knows he’s an incredibly nice guy who loves books, the publishing business, and is truly supportive of writers.
Rob: First, tell us a little about your background and how you got into the publishing business.
Matt: While I was one of those kids who was always reading (mostly at the expense of my homework), it turns out that didn’t lead me to publishing. Instead, it was a letter I wrote to a friend’s father, who was senior tax counsel at Gulf + Western, a huge conglomerate and parent of Simon & Schuster. That letter led to a summer internship, which led to an interview after graduation, which led to a job offer.
At the time, I didn’t realize that I had found an industry in which I could build a career. Twenty years later, I chuckle about my beginning, working in a corporate communications department for the legendary head of S&S, Dick Snyder.
Rob: What was it like working for Snyder?
Matt: Obviously, there were a couple of managers between me and him, but after a couple of months, a few pregnancy leaves, and a a couple of people quitting, it was me and one other woman working directly for Dick. Make no mistake, as the legend goes, he was a tough businessman and a demanding boss. But Dick was also very fair, honest with his employees, and generous if you worked hard and did a good job.
Rob: What is the role of the marketing V.P. and how does that differ from what publicists do?
Matt: This is a great question, as it is my experience that authors are very confused by these roles. But first a caveat: these marketing and publicity roles differ from house to house. A very elementary differentiation is that publicists are tasked with getting cost-free exposure and coverage for the author. Marketing personnel have operational responsibilities and are involved in expense-related activities like advertising and paid promotion.
Much of my role is team management and motivation. I’ve got wonderful creative people, and sometimes my major contribution to a promotion is identifying obstacles, and then knocking them out of the way.
Rob: Are there any genres or types of book that you find difficult to market (in fiction)?
Matt: Nope Rob, they’re all easy. OK, the actual answer is yes, all genres present their own challenges.
At the moment, for hardcovers, male thrillers are difficult to get reviewed, and difficult to get people excited about. But it all depends on the book – it always comes back to what’s between the covers. If the author has created gold, you can do wonders for the book. If it’s dreck between the covers, as a marketer you might dress it up and create a little splash, but there will be no ripples carrying the book to success.
Rob: Do you see any hope for male thrillers?
Matt: Yes, of course. First, as I mentioned, if the book is wonderful, it could be about anything at all, and the marketer can find an audience. But more to the point, there is something going on with eBooks. It may be as simple as the audience for male thrillers includes “gadget guys” who bought Kindles, iPhones, and Sony Readers, but well-reviewed thrillers seem to be a strong category in eBook sales.
Rob: How does your marketing strategy/approach differ when promoting a new author as opposed to an established one?
Matt: The key difference is usually found in the galley strategy. A new author needs to be read to find an audience. Blurbs can help if they define comparative authors and thereby identify audience, but every author is unique, and needs to be read to be understood.
Reviewers do like new authors, as it’s always fun to “discover” the next big thing. So the marketing strategy must include a way (a great blurb, a previous distinction or honor for the author, cash with the galley – kidding) to get the reviewers’ attention. For an established author, the challenge is to completely understand what has and what has not worked. The marketer must maximize what has worked, and look for new opportunities to expose the author to new audiences.
Rob: What’s going on with formats now? Is trade paperback the best? Is mass market declining?
Matt: The success of various formats is evolving, and I feel safe saying they will continue to evolve. While in 2009, there are significant challenges to the distribution of mass market paperbacks, the format is too proven and practical to disappear. As the economy and distribution partners settle down, mass market should make a comeback.
I think what you’re really asking is what is the best format for thrillers? Right now, buyers and audience are indicating that they like the trade paperback format as a way to read authors’ work initially. This is an issue our industry is going to have to address. I think most publishers will be financially challenged by the margins of producing trade paperback originals.
Rob: Most readers don’t realize that when they enter a book store that much of what they see in the front of the store is purchased space (coop). How much weight do you give to this practice in marketing fiction? What are the pros and cons?
Matt: Coop is an essential part of the marketing plan. But like most things, it doesn’t work all by itself. So we put a lot of weight on the importance of coop placement, but it is still only one component of the marketing mix.
As to pros and cons, I’ll start with the negative: it can feel like extortion. The account wants to promote the book and if a publisher declines the promotion, the account could cut the buy (the number of copies they buy initially).
On the other hand, coop promotions can be good ways to get your book in front of the consumer at the time they are making a purchase decision. Another nuance is the idea of customizing promotions for accounts. These types of promotion may be tailored to the account’s own audience, and can really move the needle. The trick in using coop with fiction is to make sure it is only one part of the mix. You need reviews, word of mouth, and general exposure to make the coop placement effective.
Rob: There’s a lot of talk about the print publishing business being in peril. What are your feelings about this?
I believe the print publishing business is in peril, but I also believe that a smart strategy can lead the industry to future health.
I used to think that the comment about a book being a tactile and efficient device was silly, but I have changed my thinking, and I believe that there genuinely is something extraordinary about the format of a printed book. I have a Kindle, I have a Sony eReader (prefer Sony), and the future of those devices and the myriad others to come is rich and creative.
I believe the printed book will live alongside these delivery devices.
Rob: With the advent of the Kindle and other reading devices, do you think there will be a time when electronic books dominate the market?
Matt: Yes, I believe that time is in our future. The potential for content delivery and new revenue models is too rich to be ignored.
Rob: Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Matt: I don’t love this question. Primarily because every novelist is different, and needs/requires different things. I will say this: every successful novelist has followed his or her own heart and instinct.
There are many wise and experienced people in this industry, and none of them are right all the time, or can even be certain about what is right for any author 100% of the time. This is not to say that a writer is always correct; rather, there are going to be turning points in every author’s career, and it is the task of the writer to identify the important ones, and make the crucial decisions based on their heart and instinct.
Thank you, Matt, for being so generous with your time today.